What began as an act of civil disobedience by renegade mountain biker Ron Cron - who in May 2009 was caught building an illegal trail called "Original Sin" on Crane Mountain near Bigfork - has since evolved into a volunteer service agreement with the Flathead National Forest to maintain and improve existing trails.
But a conservation group charges that much of Cron's trail work exceeds the scope of mere "maintenance," and accuses Forest Service officials of turning a blind eye to a growing network of unauthorized "extreme" downhill bike trails.
Keith Hammer, chair of the Swan View Coalition, says the mountain biking community has been building unauthorized ramps and jumps along the Beardance Trail above Flathead Lake for years, as well as a network of unauthorized downhill bike trails on the north side of Crane Mountain above Ferndale.
"The construction of these unauthorized ramps, jumps and trails is in violation of the law and they must be removed," Hammer said.
The trails serve as an example of another multi-use area being assaulted with jumps and stunt features, Hammer said, similar to the controversial user-built trails on Spencer Mountain in Whitefish.
Meanwhile, Cron is moving ahead with a proposal to develop a network of trails on Crane Mountain specifically designed for a style of technical mountain biking called "freeride," which would feature steep descents and obstacles. He has been actively raising money for the project even though Forest Service officials say they will not proceed with any formal analysis of the proposed trails before next year.
Hammer said the Forest Service has been overly tolerant of Cron's construction of unauthorized trails, essentially courting a relationship with him, and he fears the proposed trails will not receive the public review and oversight they deserve.
Andrew Johnson, recreation program manager for the Swan Lake District, said the Forest Service's relationship with Cron began when he was cited with a misdemeanor and fined $300 for building the illegal trail on Crane Mountain. Relations have since improved, he said, but there is a distinction between the illegal, unauthorized trail work and the recent volunteer efforts by Cron and the mountain biking community.
Johnson said the recent work has been closely monitored, and has led to improvements on the Beardance Trail that otherwise wouldn't have been made due to a lack of Forest Service resources.
"We need help caring for and maintaining those trails, and we do have a good and growing and improving relationship with Ron and the other folks in the biking community to make those trails more sustainable," Johnson said.
Although Cron has at times been overzealous in his trail work, and unauthorized jumps and other features have cropped up on the Beardance, Crane Creek and Phillips trails, Johnson said the group has been reined in.
"Our trails coordinator has worked closely with Ron, and while I think some of the initial work was outside the scope of what we would consider trail maintenance, we have since done some course correction and now they are working within our standards," Johnson said. "Some jumps have been built and that is outside the scope. We don't want them showing up without authorization. But they are also making a lot of improvements within our standards."
On the Beardance Trail, for example, the group has built log bridges over boggy, mud-covered sections of trail, as well as water bars to help the trails drain more efficiently. The log structures have helped keep foot, bike and stock traffic off the muddy sections of trail, allowing it to dry out without further damage.
"This has been an evolving relationship with Ron Cron and the mountain biking community. Like any relationship, it has had some rocky points over the years," Johnson said. "But this is not completely some rogue activity. This is someone who has a long and generally positive relationship with the district."
Cron, 50, of Kalispell, said he had the idea to build four illegal trails on Crane Mountain after watching the documentary film "Freedom Riders," which tells the story of mountain bikers who built illegal trails in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. The bikers eventually fostered a relationship with the Forest Service to keep and maintain the trails.
Cron said he planned to ape the "Freedom Riders" tactic by building the clandestine trails on Crane Mountain and then turning himself in, knowing the Forest Service would not eradicate them.
"We saw a model that worked, so we decided to copy that model, and yeah, that did involve breaking the law," Cron said.
The intention was to build the trail system and then inform the Forest Service, Cron said.
"We would then face whatever the consequences were. We wanted to build the trail first before telling the Forest Service because we knew once the trail was established it would never be removed," he wrote in a sworn affidavit.
In late April 2009, he assembled a group that worked on the trail for three days before a special agent with the Forest Service stumbled upon the project. When Cron returned to the site the following day his hand tools had been confiscated, and a business card was left in their place. On the back of the card, the agent wrote: "I have your tools. Call me regarding your trail?"
Hammer said he appreciates efforts to maintain Forest Service system trails on Crane Mountain for traditional family-friendly hiking, horseback riding, and "standard" mountain biking.
"We oppose, however, efforts to alter the historic Beardance, Phillips, or Crane Creek trails to favor extreme downhill speed and stunt biking through the construction of unsightly jumps, ramps, humps, and other unnecessary structures," he said.
Johnson said the Forest Service has asked Cron to remove the features that do not fall within the scope of trail maintenance, but emphasized that his work has generally been positive.
"We have to be clear that there were some structures, like log ramps for bikes, that did not fit that purpose. And that is the kind of stuff that we don't want to see up there," Johnson said. "Ron is someone who I believe has learned his lesson and is trying very hard to volunteer on public lands and help the Forest Service take care of a great public resource."
Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 730-1067 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.